When Chris Messina joined Google in January, just as he turned 29, many were surprised. Why would a guy who'd been so successful in pushing forward the concept of an open and social web give up his independent voice and work for "The Man", as he himself put it?
After all, he co-founded BarCamp, helped run the Spread Firefox campaign, proposed the Twitter hashtag, advocated the use of microformats and OAuth and is still a board member of the OpenID and Open Web foundations. Why did he need Google?
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"I've worked for myself for the last five years, and there are certain things you can do on your own," explains Messina, who recently ranked third in a list of the most powerful voices in open source.
"But there were also conversations that you just can't be part of because you don't represent a million users. Trying to bridge communities and bringing people together is great but it actually takes away a lot of the time that you might otherwise use to work on it. I could have spent the next three years chipping away and trying to get them to adopt these things from the outside. But going inside and making some changes by being part of the organisation seemed like a much more efficient way to get to the future many of us want."Open web advocate
Messina's job title at Google is 'open web advocate', the same title he gave himself a year and a half ago. He works with the social web developer relations team and brings ideas from the community into Google, evangelises them and helps people within the company to understand what's going on.
At the same time, he takes ideas that are bubbling beneath the surface at Google and finds ways of socialising and explaining them. Right now, he's tasked with working on the Buzz API. Although Google was widely criticised for the way it integrated its social networking tool into Gmail without addressing privacy, Messina insists Buzz has a lot of potential in the open social web.
"Google has a lot to learn in this area for sure," he says. "And they, including me, understand that Google had to do something to get some skin in the game. Buzz is a really good first step in that direction. A very strong, bold step. We're going through a process of rapid iteration to improve the product: listening to a lot of feedback, taking it in, mulling it over and figuring out how to respond."
Google has refined the privacy settings in Buzz a few times now. Just days after the February launch, it ditched its controversial auto-follow model for a list of suggested people to follow. And the latest tweak saw a confirmation page popup asking users to double-check their settings and make changes as necessary.
Buzz is an outpost
Google has also rolled out Buzz buttons and worked to fine-tune the relevance and ranking algorithms for the Buzz feed. However, the goal is not to have everybody on Buzz.
"Google will be one node on a vast social web and Buzz just one outpost that's convenient for Gmail users. If we make it possible for people to get their data out, move it around and bring it in from elsewhere, it should inspire others to move in that direction. This will lead to what I hope will be a new generation of social web apps that go beyond just newsfeed-style applications to much richer, contextual, location-based and mobile experiences that today we can't even imagine."
The Google Buzz API page lists upcoming support for various protocols, including Salmon, WebFinger, PubSubHubbub and Activity Streams, an extension to the Atom feed format to express what people are doing around the web. It shows that Google is aiming to make Buzz as open as possible.
Next big thing?
Messina says the next thing the DiSo project that he is part of ("an initiative to facilitate the creation of open, non-proprietary and interoperable building blocks for the decentralised social web") will work on after Activity Streams is groups and a peer-to-peer messaging system that enables you to send a message from one URL to another.
Salmon is one mechanism to achieve this kind of functionality. In fact, social networking tools Cliqset and Status.net recently announced the first live implementation of the open source Salmon protocol, which means users don't have to be on the same network to send messages to each other.
If others follow, the significance for the open, interoperable web could be huge. In the end, users will be able to send messages and share photos across networks, without any one company in the middle.
"I think this is a great step forward," Messina enthuses, "and a perfect demonstration of how we're advancing interoperability between networks. The Salmon spec isn't even finished yet but we're nearing a moment of rapid acceleration in distributed social web technologies."
Messina is also proposing an overhaul of OpenID (Google is by far the biggest OpenID provider, with 61 per cent of registered accounts). "OpenID has been greatly challenged by Facebook Connect," he concedes.
"On the OpenID website we've been running around like our hair's on fire. The problem is that OpenID historically took the approach of putting privacy at the forefront and we didn't account for people who actually want to share data with certain people. Because we didn't build this into the protocol to start with, we're only now getting to the point where we can create these interoperable technologies. I describe this as OpenID Connect.
"I use the word 'connect' very purposefully because Facebook did a great job in coming up with a verb that makes sense and has a different connotation than 'sign in' or 'register'. OpenID needs to be much more expressive, providing richer information and making it easier for people to sign in across the web and bring data with them in a way that's more secure."
Messina's aim is to combine OpenID with OAuth 2.0 to tie together various open technologies like Activity Streams and Portable Contacts, but he's not convinced by Facebook's recent decision to kill off the 'Facebook Connect' branding and instead implement OAuth 2.0 for user authentication as part of its new Open Graph platform.
"Regardless of what Facebook does, I think that the 'connect' verb is an important one that will only become more relevant as people need to provide long-lived access to their data. As an industry, we still need to educate people about the choice that they deserve in who provides their online identity.
While I'm all about making online identity easier to leverage on the web, taking the user out of the identity selection process may result in unexpected behaviour. That is, just because you're signed in to an account in one tab doesn't mean that it's the right identity for you to use in another tab."
In November and December, Messina also collaborated with Mozilla to envision how the browser could become more social. The concept he came up with already included OpenID Connect (see his blog entries).
"The idea was to think about the browser as a social agent," Messina explains, "somebody who helps you deal with all this information that you're producing and consuming on the web. It starts with indicating to your browser who you are. In the same way that I can take my SIM out of my phone and put it in another phone, I should be able to bring my identity into a browser and have all my preferences and friends be part of my experience."
So, while Apple increasingly counts on a closed system and Facebook seems intent on centralising user authentication and the storage of all identities, Google is much more about the open, interoperable web.
Now Messina has taken his campaign for openness inside the biggest internet company, and has its support in the battle to get more players on board. The opportunity is there, he says, to work together on these technologies while they are in their early stages and then compete on providing better services and user experiences. Surely, this can't be a bad thing?